Dialog with Story: Hello, I’m There Again

Me: So I’ve decided to buckle down and spend the entire year concentrating on my writing.

Story: Big whoop.

Me: You’re not helpful. This is a big decision. I want to see where I am at the end of the year.

Story: See my previous statement. If you need me I’ll be over here yawning.

Me: I guess now you are going to tell me how wrong I am. Since that appears to be the thrust of most of our conversations on this blog.

Story: No, what I am going to do is tell you how right you are. Don’t faint. Even a blind hog can root up an acorn now and then.

Me: You know how to make a guy feel good, Story.

Story: You should have been doing this all along, spanky. Okay, some things got in the way and maybe you didn’t have as much opportunity as you would like, but now you do. This plan to immerse yourself in the profession and see how much progress you can make in a year’s time is nothing more than common sense. Attending more conventions, networking, visiting libraries and setting up readings…it’s all smart.

Me: I don’t know how much writing I can do. I’m pretty choosy nowadays which projects I take on and which ones I leave aside.

Story: That’s normal. That comes with experience and belief in yourself and your ability as a professional. Bob Dylan once said he had many more song ideas than he let himself write. He concentrated on the songs that spoke to him in a very specific way. The other songs, he said, he would let someone else write. I can understand that way of thinking. There’s no sense toiling away at a story that doesn’t speak to your heart. If you do, you’re not writing, you’re typing. Quantity isn’t the the keystone, it’s quality. One good story is infinitely better than three lousy ones.

Me: Wow, you compared me to Bob Dylan. That’s the nicest thing you  have ever said about me, Story.

Story: Well, you looked a little down and I thought you could use a pick me up. I’m excited, too, about your plans. What’s coming up?

Me: I have a camping trip scheduled and I think I will work on something out there.

Story: Good, I’ll come with you.

Me: That should make things easier.

Story: Less talk, and more packing, bunky. And lots more writing.

Making plans are one thing, settling on what they mean in the end is also important




Late Afternoon Thoughts on a Novel in Progress

It's all just scribbling in the end! I am not using italics for the Spanish translations in the Haxan prequel novel. I want to show stylistically the Spanish and English is all one part of the same culture. Now whether or not I am ultimately successful in this is open to debate. But that’s my philosophy why I am not underlining Spanish words, etc. I feel it is a correct one, so far.

Because I am not italicizing Spanish words and phrases I thought about not using quotation marks at all. I will write the novel in such a way as to convey who is speaking. There is dialog, but do so without the use of quotation marks? My writing buddy said that would require a deep rewrite of the 170 pages I have so far, and I agree. It would require a deep rewrite. But then I could go ahead and finish the novel in that vein. Hey, it could be worse. I could have a finished novel on my hand and then be faced with a 400+ page rewrite.

Well, no one ever said writing was easy.

Here’s the structural problem, as I see it. You can’t just pull quotation marks out and expect the story to flow. My writing buddy suggested I write the next scene and see what it looks like on paper. It will answer for me whether the story calls for that, plus it’s easier to add quotation marks in a scene for dialog, than to take them away and expect the prose to make any qualitative sense.

I have read novels before without quotation marks. I’m just wondering if the story calls for it. I won’t do it for any other reason than the story, because any other reason is an affectation on my part. I’m not going to risk the story for that reason alone.

Nothing I have mentioned here is consuming me. The story is consuming me. But these are questions that raise themselves every time you write something. I feel it is always important to look deep into the story and see what else it needs, rather than concentrate on smoke and mirrors to get the job done. I am toying with these ideas as the story unfolds. I am trying to see ways to elevate the story without it becoming more than itself. Or, what I mean, I guess, is drawing attention to the story that do not elevate or enhance other aspects of the novel.

This is all stuff I am thinking of as I work. I always viewed this novel as an anti-western from the first day of conception. Non-traditional ways of structure might help convey that sense while keeping the story congruent.

I have been waking up around 3:30 am and ready to write. I have done this profession a long time. This is the nice part. Strike while the iron is hot, because later when that energy flags you still have to write, and it just becomes work, work, work.

Another thing I am concerned about is  how it looks on the page. A lot of writers don’t consider that, but it’s important. It’s one of those almost nonexistent things you don’t necessarily think about or consider, but they operate on subconscious levels and readers definitely respond to them.

It’s looking like this will be around 100K words or so. Not  too bad. I want to keep it around there. 125K tops. It doesn’t feel like a bigger book than that, and if it were bigger a primary character’s role would be diminished. That would be totally wrong because the entire novel is about Marwood’s relationship to him. You subsume the antagonist to that degree and the novel would collapse. I don’t want that, obviously.

There’s always something to keep in mind when writing. It’s not just transcribing the story from your mind into print.

It’s the subtleties that kill you, and keep you up at night.

“The Whistler” is being aired on Theater 13 Radio!

Theater 13 Radio is running an Old Time Radio marathon of The Whistler. This classic radio show was based on horror, mystery, suspense and other genres. The main thing about this show is you get to follow the story through the eyes of the murderer, and yet the story always takes an unexpected twist in the last minute. They are very well written and like all OTR I think theybenefit writers who want to concentrate on dialog and story structure.



Mistress Zarella welcomes you to Theater 13 Radio....


The Smoke and Mirrors Effect in Writing

Writing, good writing, is all about smoke and mirrors.Don't confuse being truthful to the story with the demands of fiction. They are apples and oranges.

You’ve heard the old saw Truth is stranger than fiction. It’s also unpublishable as fiction. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood notwithstanding, trying to write pure fact as pure fiction is darn near impossible. Even for all of Capote’s talent and genius he knew enough not to write everything in that story as fact.

A perfect example is dialog. Go to a coffee shop or listen to how people talk anywhere you are. You can’t print that jabber. It’s loaded with dialect, ums and ahs and umphs and ers and who knows what else. Now read a story. Pay attention to the dialog. People don’t talk like that in real life. A writer has to keep that in mind. He has to make the dialog sound real enough without interfering with the story.

This is a trap beginning writers sometimes find themselves in. They want to be truthful to the character and the reality of the place, and the story itself, so they load down the dialog with unreadable dialect. When they are called on it they say “But that’s how people really talk.”

I know that’s how people really talk. But that’s not how you want it to read. And believe you me those two are apples and oranges.

I’m going to say something that’s going to shock you, but I want you to take it to heart. When you are writing a story it’s okay to cheat. You don’t have to show everything you know about the character or the time or the place. In fact the less you say the stronger and the more impact the story will have.

It’s all smoke and mirrors. Truth is stranger than fiction. That’s why it’s not fiction. Fiction is just that: it is truth disguised as fiction. That’s what you have to keep separate, and most writers do.

We are told over and over we have to be true to the story. I agree with that statement. But that does not mean you have to disregard the peculiar demands fiction requires.

People read stories to be entertained. They can be taught new things about the human condition or history or life or love or whatever in the process…but first and foremost your readers want to be entertained. Fiction has a power unlike anything else because we can use the smoke and mirrors inherent in the art form to disguise that which needs to be hidden, while at the same time illuminating those points we want to drive home.

That’s a powerful tool, imo, and one that has to be used judiciously.

Stuck on a Haxan Story for a Year…and I’m Glad

Yesterday at the coffee shop I sat and listened to some old Gunsmoke radio episodes. These are always good for recharging my batteries, so to speak. Especially when I am deeply involved in writing western stories…or stories in gSometimes we can learn more from being stuck than doing something easy in writing...eneral. The dialog is fantastic and the pacing and structure of the old time radio stories are helpful if you want to study and think about theory.

This is important because I have been struggling with a Haxan short story for about a year now. I wrote the story last summer and I’ve fiddled with it here and there…but it has never come out feeling finished.

There’s something missing in the story. I can’t identify it. But it bothers me.

I have to admit this doesn’t happen too often anymore. It was more normal when I was just starting out as a writer and had way less confidence than I do today. But even for that I am kind of glad this story is still nagging me and that I can’t figure out what’s wrong with it or how to fix it.

The reason is because the story is reminding me that writing is a constant learning process. Anytime a writer thinks he has it all figured out he is setting himself up for colossal failure. So that’s why I am not peeved I can’t figure this story out. I feel deep down I will one day find the key element that’s missing and make the story come together. Then again, if I don’t, that’s okay, too. Because it will always be there nagging at me, a constant reminder that no matter how many stories I have sold, there is always something more I can learn.

Writing is difficult. But sometimes in our difficulties we can learn something more about the structure of a story, and ourselves.

Theater 13 Radio Marathon: CBS Radio Mystery Theater

Theater 13 Radio is ringing in the New Year by running a CBS Radio Mystery Theater marathon. This was the classic radio show hosted by E.G. Marshall. I just love listening to Old Time Radio because the emphasis is on dialog, an important aspect of fiction. It’s always a learning experience for me.

Hope you guys like this classic radio programming and have a great New Year’s day! 🙂

Mistress Zarella welcomes you to Theater 13 Radio....

Two Big Decisions on the New Haxan Novel

When you work on a novel, or any story, you always make constant decisions. I think this is normal in the creative process. At least that has been my experience.

One of the decisions I have come to about the new Haxan novel is I will not translate the Spanish dialog when it appears. I will, however, try to give context to what they are saying by showing action between the characters, and reaction. I suppose such a decision firmly puts this novel in the literary category. I’m not adverse to that but I have to be ready to accept whatever criticism it may engender.

I simply am not interested in writing the same-old kind of novel where everything is neatly laid out in perfect squares. Life isn’t like that so why should a story be that way as well? I have no intention of eschewing standard grammar and style choices for formatting the work. It’s not that kind of novel, either. But I have decided I will not translate the Spanish dialog that transpires between characters. It is that kind of novel.

I must admit this was not a difficult decision on my part. I was leaning toward it for quite some time now. In other stories I have always provided a translation if I used non-English dialog. I’m just not going to do it with this novel.

Does this decision make things even harder for me to write? Yes, it does. But the novel was difficult to begin with, given the subject matter and what I want it to accomplish, so moving the goal post a little farther doesn’t dissuade me one bit. This novel was always a challenge for me which is why I wanted to write it in the first place. So that’s what I’m going to do.

The second big decision I made was with the help of my Writing Buddy. I am planning a big trip along the Mexico-U.S. border in the spring because I need to research that area. I was wondering if I should hold off on writing the novel a little, take the trip, then finish the novel. My Writing Buddy said she thought I should go ahead and write as much of the novel as I can before I take the trip because I am in a groove now. To back away from that might be detrimental to the creative process. Also, researching the landscape and area isn’t going to change the basic story of the novel.

I mean, it doesn’t make or break the novel, it’s just an extra mile (literally many miles) I am willing to take for the sake of the story. That being the case, I agree with her. I will go ahead and keep writing the novel and when the trip comes along I can use or not use things I find and see in the story. But it would be foolish for me to put the novel aside now and wait for the trip before I go back to working on it.

I couldn’t see that for myself. Forest for the trees, and so forth. That’s why it is so helpful to have someone you trust and ask for guidance. The worst possible critic of a story is the writer himself. I firmly believe that. We are too close to the story. We do everything we can to see all available avenues and facets, but no matter what there is always something we miss. That’s why a fresh pair of eyes and a fresh perspective are so valuable.

Les Miserables: “Hunger comes with love.”

I finished reading Les Miserables by Victor Hugo for the second time some years back.  The first time I read it was in high school.  I liked it then, I love it now, even after all this time.

I guess everyone knows about Jean Valjean stealing a loaf of bread and being pursued by Javert.  But, my God, does this book ever deserve its title. Everyone is wretched, in one way or another. How can we ever forget the grinding poverty and dehumanization of Fantine?  And how Cosette, her little girl, must live as a slave under the monstrous Thenardier family?

There are enduring images which have survived over the centuries.  Fantine selling her front teeth so Cosette has enough to eat,  the fight on the barricade, the flight through the sewers.  This is a huge book in more ways than one.  The writing is fantastic and there are little “Hugoisms” sprinkled throughout that make you put the book down and marvel either at the turn of phrase or the beauty of the writing itself.  Like these:

“Gravediggers die.  By dint of digging graves for others, they open their own.”

“There is a moment when girls bloom out in a twinkling and become roses all at once.  Yesterday we left them children, to-day we find them dangerous.”

“Hunger comes with love.”

“Humanity is identity.  All men are the same clay.”

“Women play with their beauty as children do with their knives.  They wound themselves with it.”

“When we are at the end of life, to die means to go away; when we are at the beginning, to go away means to die.”

“Then he heard his soul, again ba truly stunning and magnificent workecome terrible, give a sullen roar in the darkness.”

“Certain flames can only come from certain souls; the eye, that window of the thought, blazes with it; spectacles hide nothing; you might as well put a glass over hell.”

“Robber, assassin….these words fell upon him like  a shower of ice.”

One of the main ingredients of this novel is the depth of human emotion.  It’s never overdone, which is an easy thing for a writer to do.  We are often moved, such as the scene when Cosette marries and Jean Valjean must disappear from her life to protect her from his past.  He goes home, takes out the little dress she used to wear as a child, and pressing it against his face sobs uncontrollably.  And I challenge anyone to read Valjean’s monologue at the end of the novel and not get a little weepy.  Strong stuff.  Memorable.

This is a great book.  I’m glad I reread it and as I think about it more maybe I will read it a third time.  It might be one of those books I read again every twenty years or so.  But even if I do not I’m a better person for reading it in the first place, that’s for sure.

If you haven’t read this novel, you should.  If you have, do so again.  It’s great.

Ikiru: Making Death Relevant by Kurosawa

This film examines a fundamentally human question we all wrestle with from time to time. Is the universe a dark and cold place, or do our actions have lasting, and permanent, consequences?  Kurosawa doesn’t answer the question because it’s fundamentally unanswerable. As most human questions are. But his characters speak and react as if they can somehow find the answer.

Still, one of the best films I’ve ever seen. The writing is great and the dialog superb. It follows a government bureaucrat who wants to accomplishing one worthwhile thing in life before he dies. I really loved it. A moving and contemplative film that takes a hard and unforgiving look at human nature.

Simply loved it.

Gunsmoke: “I will not tolerate a disturbance. You know me.”

Forget everything you know, or think you know, about Matt Dillon and Kitty and Doc.  This radio series which ran for nine years was meant to be an adult-oriented western that broke the mold and challenged the archetypal Western hero.  The creators, Norman MacDonnell and John Meston wanted to shatter all Western stereotypes.  They were successful.

The result was Gunsmoke.

The first audition was a hardboiled detective story set in the West. The main character was “Mark Dillon.”  The second audition was more Western-oriented but then the project sat on the shelf and gathered dust for two years.  Eventually, a radio actor named William Conrad read for the part and was immediately hired as the show moved into production.

Everybody has an idea of the type of man Matt Dillon is. Whether it be from the television show or national iconic status, everybody knows what kind of man he is and what he believes in and how he deals with people.  Forget all that. In the radio program, Matt Dillon is damn near a psychopath.  He’s as hard and brutal as the violent men who pass through Dodge City from the cow trails.  He’s acerbic and bitter and when his gun hand moves, it moves in a blur.

The writing portrays this all the time. In one episode a man comes up to Dillon out of the dark.  “Some night I’ll get drunk enough to pull on you you, Dillon.”

Long pause, and delivered with conviction:  “Then that’s the night you’re gonna die.”


“If you’re figuring to draw on me, don’t.”

“Why not, Matt?”

“I’ve seen you in action. You’re not fast enough.”

And Dillon is always shouting at the rubbernecking crowds, telling them to shut up or he’ll club them to death, or threatening them he will NOT tolerate a disturbance, or asking with clenched teeth when they don’t disperse fast enough, “Who wants to die first?”

Yeah, he’s a psychopath barely holding himself together, nerves made of barbed wire and a soul of scarred leather.  The radio series establishes this at the beginning.  Dillon is a violent man who has moved West with violence.  He is hard and brutal; life, and his job, made him that way.  He is completely different from anything you have seen on the television program.

And Kitty Russell?  It was never implied on the television series she was a prostitute.  But if you knew anything about the Old West you knew what she did for a living.  The radio show is very different from TV.  Kitty’s not a prostitute on the Old Time Radio series.  She’s a whore. I find this incredible.  You’re talking about 1952 and it’s cut and dried: Kitty sells herself to other men and Dillon is in love with her. And if you say something bad about her, well, you’d better start digging your grave.  Fascinating with what they got away with on radio, but couldn’t even touch, or allude to, on television.

Doc Adams?  He’s a gibbering ghoul who rubs his hands over a corpse because he’s going to be paid an autopsy fee. He was played by Howard McNear, the same actor who played Floyd the Barber on The Andy Griffith Show.  His soft spoken voice and gleeful nature as he pokes and prods at a cadaver is very disturbing.

Sound effects, as you might guess, are essential in radio.  Gunsmoke was famous for layering sound to create the emptiness of the prairie, the dust-filled streets of Dodge, the cold wind blowing through the stunted trees, the sound of the night train coming into Dodge.  When you hear a gunshot on the radio program that’s an authentic weapon: carbine, six gun, scatter gun, being fired.  It’s all authentic, even the animal life was meticulously researched.

As the show progresses it begins to concentrate on the human relationships between the principal characters with violence and adult sex as an undercurrent theme.  But as good as it is, the acting, the emotive voices, the incredible sound effects, the stark characterization…nothing beats the writing itself.

John Meston wrote about 25% of the episodes. He accurately portrays the harsh brutality of what life was like in an unforgettably harsh and graphic manner.  Dillon doesn’t always win in the end. In one episode he amputates the leg of a man to save him from blood poisoning.  The man dies anyway. In another, a girl is raped for weeks by four men.  Dillon rescues her, but she becomes a prostitute.  Sometimes the bad guy gets away completely.  In one story, an entire family is slaughtered and the wife kicked to death.  Dillon finds her daughter in a copse of dark trees, raped and killed and scalped. Chester stands over the body and weeps.

These aren’t feel good stories. They’re stories.  Therein lie their power.

As a writer I like to think I know something about writing. But I’ve learned more by listening to these programs than in all the years I’ve been writing professionally.  Maybe that says something about me, but I think it speaks more to the power of these stories and what they ultimately reveal about human nature and all its brutality.

If you want to learn how to write, if you are a writer and want to learn more about theory and characterization and stark dialog, I strongly urge you to give some of these episodes a listen.  You won’t be disappointed.

One final note. Those who know about the creative process of my own western series, Haxan, know how much of an influence Gunsmoke had on me. I can’t think of a better inspiration throughout the entire genre than John Meston’s creation.

Dragnet – Old Time Radio that delivers stark violence and murder for adults

I am always amazed at how “adult” OTR is compared to the sanitized candycorn of TV from the same era. Or even compared to many commercial television programs slopping their sugar water today. One such example is Dragnet. The old radio programs are very brutal and violent, very different from the watered down television programs of the same name. Though, to be fair, the tight, spare dialog, which was always the hallmark of Dragnet, remains in force.

All too often I thought the TV Dragnet was preachy and more interested in pushing a flag-waving erection bursting meme of “USA and LAW ENFORCEMENT HELL YEAH!” than delivering solid writing that examines the deep fractures in a human soul. Well, that’s TV for you. But if there’s any meme being preached in the OTR series it’s that violence is an ineluctable part of human nature and the world is a ceaseless shithole of blood, degradation, and grisly murder. That’s what the OTR Dragnet is about.

If your only familiarity with Dragnet and Joe Friday is the TV series then you are gonna be surprised at these old radio programs, I think.

Theater 13 Radio is currently running a Dragnet marathon. Click on the banner below and it will take you directly to the main website where you can find the .pls or download a media player of your choice. Theater 13 is also on StreamFinder, TuneIn and other radio sites. Google is your friend!

If you haven’t listened to these tightly written and uncompromising programs you might do well as a writer, or just a crime/mystery/suspense fan, to give ’em a try. Enjoy!

Theater 13 Radio

A Dialog with Story: On Dialog

Story: Here we go again.

Me: What’s wrong now?

Story: Your dialog. People don’t talk that way.

Me: Well, I can’t write it the way people really talk, either. Have you ever listened to how people talk? They hem and haw and start and stop…you try writing a story like that and see how fast it gets rejected. Or thrown across a room by a frustrated reader.

Story: Very true.

Me: So what’s wrong?

Story: This.

Me: Huh?

Story: This. The conversation we’re having now. You don’t see it, do you?

Me: No, but I have the sneaking suspicion you are going to enlighten me.

Story: There, you did it again.

Me: Did WHAT again?

Story: Avoided the point of the dialog we are supposed to be having. Ran on without getting to the point.

Me: What do you mean?

Story: Dialog in a story isn’t only words with quotation marks and attribution. There has to be a point to it. Even if the point is pointlessness, if that makes any sense. Dialog has to have an emotional underpinning, or advance the story in some fashion, in order for it to work. Just writing lines of dialog that don’t focus on a particular thing or advance the story weakens the story, weakens me, until the structure of the story collapses. Dialog is tough, make no mistake about it. Some stories are all dialog. They have to work on a higher level than a story with moderate dialog. But don’t get confused. Even a story without any dialog whatsoever is still carrying on a dialog with the reader. The words you write are interpreted by the reader as a dialog. You are speaking to the reader via the structure of your story and he hears that voice. Pretty important, when you think about it.

Me: Okay, let’s try this again.

Story: All right. I’ll start from the top. Here we go again.

Me: Yes, I know. But I can’t write dialog the way people speak. It would bore the reader.

Story: Then only write dialog that the reader needs, and no more.

Me: Hey, that was fast! It got the point across in a few lines.

Story: And  it also advanced the story through dialog. An added benefit.

Me: Why are you so good to me?

Story: Let’s talk about that….

Tight and concise dialog can advance the story quicker than something more elaborate.

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